Q [School-Aged]: “Now that my son is in middle school, I am heading back to work. There is a two hour lag between school and when I get home. How old do kids need to be to stay at home alone?”
A: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 11 or 12 should not be left home alone without supervision, as children under this age are often not ready to effectively manage emergencies on their own. So, this is a good place to start when determining if your child is capable of being left home alone safely. There are also legal issues to consider. For example, while the state of California does not have a law identifying at what age a child can be left home alone, the law does state that parents failing to provide their child with shelter, food, clothing, medical care and supervision may be considered neglectful. So, you will want to have a plan in place to make sure your child’s needs for safety are met. This means making sure your child can do the following: reach you by phone, contact a safe adult neighbor if needed, manage an emergency or call 911, and access food and water.
Your child’s level of maturity (or developmental age) is also important to consider. For example, a mature 12 year old may be able to stay home alone for an hour or two, while a not yet mature 12 year old is probably not ready. A good measure of maturity includes sound judgment, trustworthiness, comfort with self-direction and the absence of behavioral health issues like, depression, anxiety, impulsivity or rule breaking behavior.
In terms of how long your child will be left home alone, an hour or two after school is probably ok, while leaving a child alone overnight is not. Starting with a much shorter duration (i.e. 30 minutes) may be a helpful way to determine if your child is able to handle being left home alone. It may be helpful to think about any afterschool programs that your child can participate in a few days a week to reduce the time they are left home alone.
Dr. Aaron Montgomery is a clinical psychologist and child, adolescent & young adult specialist providing psychotherapy and psychological testing services at his office in Newport Beach, Ca. His mission is to apply state of the art clinical strategies to help individuals and families. www.DrAaronMontgomery.com